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Thenmozhi Soundararajan on taking the struggle against caste global

Activists Meena Kandasamy and Thenmozhi Soundararajan talk about systemic structural discrimination, civic engagement, alliance-building and more

Detail of Bhima Koregaon Memorial, 2023, artwork by Rahee Punyashloka
Detail of Bhima Koregaon Memorial, 2023, artwork by Rahee Punyashloka (Rahee Punyasholka or @artdekar on Instragram)

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As a fellow activist and writer, I have fangirl-ed over US-based Thenmozhi Soundararajan for close to a decade. We have done the sisterhood routine: DMs, messages, making plans to meet, cancelling last minute. When I finally sit down to interview her over Zoom, we settle into it with the comfort of old friends catching up: We constantly go off-the-record to share secrets, trade notes on coping with trauma, make plans on how best to go about smashing Brahminical patriarchy without causing offence to too many fragile beasts on the way.

The immediate reason for our interview is that Thenmozhi has a new book out: The Trauma Of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation On Survivorship, Healing, And Abolition. We start our conversation with the most customary question: “How is the book doing?” She is upbeat. “It’s the first time you are seeing that sort of ‘ let’s have that level of civic engagement’ power in the country. There are a lot of learning curves and also movements that are scaling up to support us.” Her book ties in beautifully with what is happening in the US at the moment and she is proud to see it work. “I think what is really powerful is to see the book being used in advocacy around here. It’s transforming, both in educating external stakeholders, but also how our community uses it for advocacy.”

Caste has now become a global talking point and Thenmozhi has been central to many of these discussions. In 2016, her organisation conducted the first survey on caste discrimination in the US. Last year, Google cancelled her scheduled talk to its employees owing to pressure from casteist employees. However, not everyone at Google was aligned with this outlook. One senior employee, Tanuja Gupta, resigned from Google in solidarity, stating, “In the process of doing my job and promoting caste equity at the company, I saw four women of colour harassed and silenced.” Thenmozhi, as director of Equality Labs, also championed the Seattle city council’s anti-caste discrimination law introduced by Indian-American council member Kshama Sawant. Thenmozhi is passionate and proud of the work that has been done, indicative of the progress in the struggle against caste playing out in the diaspora.

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I ask why she took the struggle against caste to global platforms. “It was very apparent that in South Asia, the Brahminical control of the media was preventing the scope and the scale of the problem from really being heard at a global level. And there’s also disinterest, I think, from European and North American companies and nations to even have a really robust, honest conversation about caste because they benefit from engaging with the Indian market and don’t want to harm their relationships. But journalists are way more willing to cover those issues because they are shocked.

“What we are seeing is that South Asians certainly have globalised caste but Ambedkar’s children have globalised the resistance. People want to hear our story; they want to cover it. This kind of systemic structural discrimination, there’s just no reason for it. And I think people are flabbergasted and appalled, which they should be, and that’s why they are standing forward. Then you just realise that as DBA (Dalit Bahujan Adivasi) people, we have been gaslit our whole lives. When you talk to any rational human being and tell them...the things people do in the name of caste, they (say), ‘That’s terrible, that should never happen.’ It’s incredibly validating for our humanity to know, the world does care.”

In the tightrope walk of activist lingo, there is a question I want her to answer: Why does she prefer using the term abolition (of caste), as opposed to annihilation, which is more popular in India? She tells me how terms do not translate easily across cultures and shares an example of the first time she used the word “annihilation” in the US and someone asked if it was “a science fiction you wanna annihilate aliens!” Because people didn’t grasp the word, because the language of discourse in the diaspora was different, she had to look for other words.

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“Looking for equity, you don’t say I am gonna annihilate gender or annihilate race. You are talking about ways that you bring into equity different people with different protective characteristics. Abolition was more appropriate for two reasons: One, it comes with the understanding that we want to remove caste; then, it translated way more in this context. I was really inspired by those who used the term abolition and I think that not many are aware that people were enslaved as part of the caste system. There’s modern-day slavery, there’s discrimination, bias, all of these things. But part of the contempt that comes from the caste system is because we were treated as slaves. So, using that term allows us to dial in and focus on the slavery.”

Expectedly, this alliance-building and hunting for common ground has not gone down well with everyone. Thenmozhi recounts how a savarna man called her out for appropriation, arguing that “enslavement was something that only happened to black folks”. Lived realities contrast starkly with these casual assumptions. “One of our colleagues, their family was a part of the bridal trousseau of the Reddys because they were slaves crossing over the border from Andhra to Tamil Nadu,” Thenmozhi points out. She adds: “It’s...the historical nature of caste that the savarnas do not understand; how much violence was done in their names.”

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Obviously, the work Thenmozhi is doing has earned her enemies: She has had to face abuse, she has been doxxed: “I think I am able to do this work because my family stands by me and I also think that there are more of us that believe in reconciliation and healing and love,” she says. “Then there are those that want to take us down barrelling into darkness and themselves are losing the ideological war.”

We move on to discussing the repercussions of anti-caste work in India and the price being paid by activists on the ground. I remind her of the 2018 Bhima Koregaon case. “If you talk to a lot of local and national stakeholders, they don’t understand how profound the democratic decline is in India,” she says. “When I talked to folks who have been part of struggles under genocide, and people who organised under apartheid in South Africa, the only solution to the mass arrest was a global resistance. People had to speak about it...not as just a single arrest but a pattern of political persecution. It’s gonna get worse before it gets better but, already, more people are learning about it and are shocked by what’s happening.”

Meena Kandasamy is a poet, writer, translator and activist.

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